A subtle shift is under way towards greatere-customer empowerment. Firms that fail to offer their Web customers an adequate degree of self-service will be regarded as dated or even hostile.
Sites that are really friendly and compare well with the best give their customers a high level of power and control. The technology which facilitates this is customer self-service (CSS).
Damien Hyland, vice-president of Europe for Tower Technologies, says, "Customers who feel in control are more likely to stay until the end of the transaction and are more likely to come back in future. It is a very simple piece of psychology."
Paul Wynne, vice-president of operations of Web software supplier Aduronet, agrees, saying, "We have developed a Web tool product called Aduronet Dashboard which gives customers real-time access to data and management reports, including their hosting solution and network performance, billing and trouble ticketing, and provide a high level of customer control and self-management. Increasingly, customers expect it."
Sites failing to offer this kind of self-determination will find customers opt for those sites and suppliers which are open and committed to customer empowerment.
"Customer self-service is a collection of online e-services that promotes good customer relationship management [CRM]," explains Gavin King, product manager of developer tools for Microsoft.
"The benefits of CSS technology is that it provides targeted advertising and personalisation, intelligent Web-based call-management and order tracking and purchasing information available to the customer, at the very least," he says.
Wynne continues, "CSS allows customers to take control of their own facilities and get immediate information on the performance of their network hosting solution, and to self-configure their networks.
"Our customers can change the configuration of their networks at a moment's notice, and port speeds can be upgraded or downgraded, customers can add extra sites, and add or remove firewalls. They can also generate their own reports on system performance."
CSS allows suppliers to offer their customers unrivalled flexibility, power and self-determination, in Aduronet's case, specifically in connection with the network and Internet service providers, but in other industries and markets in other ways. Already in most sites customers are able to search for specific product information and initiate a purchase transaction, which in turn triggers a payment and delivery action, but CSS takes this much further and allows the customer a high level of access to data and documents within the vendor enterprise.
Wynne says, "Online billing information and service statistics are frequently demanded by customers, once the facility is available."
"The problem is that some site operators say, 'but customers don't ask for self-service', but the fact is that if customers don't know what's possible they don't know what to ask for," Hyland adds. "Once customers have experienced CSS on other sites, then their expectations rise and they will start to demand it on all sites. We are beginning to get to that stage now."
CSS really comes into its own when customers are able to resolve their own problems as Alan Mann, sales manager with eCRM specialist Pegasystems, points out. "By directing customers to an online database specifically built for problem solving they can frequently resolve their own problems. Obviously, this saves on internal support resources as well as making support easier and quicker for customers."
It is important that CSS is backed up with a responsive e-mail system and telephone access to an operator.
Mann says, "By using an intelligent rules-based system customers are able to prompt automatic prepared answers to a high percentage of routine questions."
The cost of having a human support executive repeating the same resolutions to common problems is often underestimated, and not really appreciated until an automatic CSS system is used as a replacement.
Mann says, "A company can achieve phenomenal cost savings when comparing call centre with self-service costs. Forrester estimates a call centre response costs $32 while giving access to a knowledge-based Web is $1.17."
Wireless application protocol (Wap) technology is likely to be integrated into CSS solutions over the next year, making it a common feature by the end of 2001. Mann says, "Already a Wap phone can be used to check a bank balance, but currently applications are fairly constrained. Future technology will mean far more creative and powerful services with constant availability."
Staff benefit from CSS as much as customers, partly because their work is not trivialised with frequently asked questions, but also because they can develop better relationships with customers as they focus on truly challengingproblems.Theirjob satisfaction improves dramatically as customer satisfaction increases.
It is important not to confuse CSS with CRM, says Hyland. "CRM has become an umbrella term which embraces all kinds of customer management systems, but real-time response and interaction between customer and site operating enterprise requires a completely different kind of system."
While CRM can be used to analyse customers and build customer profiles for marketing and product development purposes, CSS ensures that the interaction via the Web site is a satisfying experience. "CRM is all about making sure your productsand strategic development are right for your customers' needs and desires, while CSS ensures their online experience is a happy one," he says.
Hyland continues, "CRM encourages firms and managers to be internally focused and also isolates customers, while CSS helps customers to communicate with each other as well as have the power to search for the information they want.
"CSS allows customers to interact with each other and talk back to the company as a sort of unionised group, rather than as isolatedindividuals. This is really revolutionaryforsome companies, but is definitely the way forward. Already customers are demanding it."
Jos Gerrese, vice-president of new product management for Ipulsys, an ISP originally part of the Mannesmann Group, says, "We have developed a system which allows customers to talk to each other and to initiate queries.
Called interactive customer engagement, the system gives customers direct access to our router so they can manage the network themselves and make contact with other system users.
As well as instant access via e-mail or telephone to a human support person, a CSS system should also be carefully designed to be idiot-proof without being over-simple and patronising.
"You have to assume that the visitor has very little experience, but at the same time you can't patronise revisiting existing customers, says Hyland.
There also need to be different solutions for CSS for sales and CSS for support. Steve Carre, director of the helpdesk software division of FrontRange Solutions (previously GoldMine Software) says, "What they have in common is the need to know which customer you are dealing with, and this depends on the underlying database and the CSS system's interaction with it."
He says FrontRange's iHEAT a helpdesk product offers Web access and enables customers to get information and help when it suits them. "We are able to offer our customers a very high level of customer service without taking on a high cost overhead. This type of differentiation helps win business and improve the overall profitability."
CSS is already widely used in mortgage application processing. Mark Loosmore, sales and partnership director at e-business specialist Focus, explains, "The whole mortgage application process can take several weeks and often means the potential buyer will miss a property-buying opportunity.
"It is possible to process a mortgage application within 24 hours, although there are commonly several complications along the way, and a CSS system can mean that a customer can keep abreast of the progress of an application and answer any queries as it moves along.
"If there is adverse credit information, for example, the applicant can provide additional information and the application is not held up beyond a few minutes."
CSS is also used by PhotoBox, an online digital photographic specialist which recently moved to corporate services. Graham Hobson, CEO of Photobox, says, "Photographers at corporate events, for example, can send images to our Web site where guests at the event can then view them and order copies. Guests are given a card at the event giving them instructions on how to access the gallery at our site. We recently provided this service to the photographer who took snaps of a private Merrill Lynch Christmas party and our site received 250,000 hits the next day.
"Customers are able to open their own online photo album and upload their images to it. Then they can leave their album on a private setting or distribute pictures to the e-mail addresses of people they want to view their pics, or put them on public display at our site. Customers are put in control, but the photographer can have a detailed record of who is requesting pictures, who has downloaded them and how many copies have been made," says Hobson.
"Photographers can have a complete record of transactions at any time. The system is entirely automated and self-service," he adds.
Other users include the NHS, which has recently implemented a CSS system from Innovex.
Jeremy Broadis, MIS manager at Innovex, says, "As the healthcare environment changes and with recent legislation, it is imperative that more healthcare workers and managers have greater power to access files, data and information, and a CSS front end facilitates this.
"It saves the NHS enormous amounts of money and time, and makes it more efficient. Information from pharmaceutical companies, patient information, details of bed availability and so forth, can all be co-ordinated from a simple front end through a controlled access CSS system."
Health service territories can be managed more effectively because statistical information is more freely available, and patients and doctors can have real-time information about treatments, drugs and appointments. Not all health services have moved into CSS, but Broadis believes that it is inevitable.
"Any organisation under pressure to improve bottom- line performance will find that CSS allows it to improve the quality of customer service at a lower cost - and surely that is an irresistible proposition."
CSS: benefits now and later
What can customer self service do for your organisation?
What future benefits will it offer?